Nicolene Swanepoel Cattle Heads | | Art in South Africa
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Cattle as cultural markers in South Africa | UJ Art Gallery (University of Johannesburg Art Gallery)

The current esteem of Nguni cattle, witnessed by their ubiquitous presence in contemporary popular culture are living reminders of our colourful history and of nostalgia for a ‘golden’ pastoral age. From the landing of the first European ships, cattle have been present at and were often the spindle of sometimes amicable but more often conflicted interactions between colonialists and indigenous people. They provided food and hides, pulled ploughs and wagons, carried people and their possessions, bore warriors into battle, and also acted as spiritual vessels to connect with the realms of ancestors.

The absence of cattle in contemporary urban life accentuated by irreverent anthropomorphic symbols, such as an emblem of a ‘happy’ cow on a milk sachet. However, real cattle, being a part of our cultural memory, should not be forgotten, and effort has to be made to retain them as elements in a greater store of information from which to create contemporary and future art.

I hope my ceramic cattle heads can add value to an already rich archive of South African cultural memories, which may assist us in ascertaining a sense of meaning, belonging, and identity in a world which may seem increasingly alienating and de-humanised, and remind us of our intrinsic bond with, and responsibility to other animals.

Many of my newer heads are embellished with the following African maxim: “Cow god of the home, god with the moist nose, cow that makes nations fight; you have killed many men.”

These words reveal to me the ‘masculine’ (warriors, nations) struggle to come to grips with the female (cow, god(dess)) and the tendency of humans to transfer blame of their own incompetence’s on ‘the other’, the other often being actual animals or anthropomorphic embodiments of animals (in this instance, the cow (in the form of a goddess) being blamed for human warfare and killing).

I have had an intense interest in animals since childhood, and how their lives, when interwoven with ours, have influenced human society and culture. On a personal level, this work has also brought together two apparently conflicting aspects of my life, that of being an artist, with that of a veterinarian.